Seven synthetic peptides corresponding to the polymorphic regions of the alpha and beta chains of the I-Ak molecule were examined for their ability to inhibit the presentation of foreign antigens to antigen-specific, I-A-restricted T cell hybridomas. Two of the peptides, representing the sequences found in the first and third polymorphic regions (PMR) of the A alpha k chain (alpha k-1 and alpha k-3) were capable of inhibiting the presentation of three different HEL-derived peptide antigens to their appropriate T cells. In addition, the alpha k-1 peptide inhibited the presentation of the OVA(323-339) immunodominant peptide to the I-Ad-restricted T cell hybridomas specific for it. Prepulsing experiments demonstrated that the PMR peptides were interacting with the APC and not with the T cell hybridomas. These observations were confirmed and extended by the demonstration that the alpha k-1 and alpha k-3 peptides blocked the direct binding of HEL(46-61) to purified I-Ak and that the alpha k-1 peptide blocked the binding of OVA(323-339) to I-Ad. The binding competition experiments suggest that the alpha k-1 peptide binds to the I-Ak molecule from which it was derived with a Kd approximately 10(-5) M, while the alpha k-3 peptide binds slightly less well. These combined data, suggesting that class II-derived peptides can bind to MHC class II molecules, including the autologous molecule from which they are derived, have important implications for the molecular basis of alloreactivity and autoreactivity. Further, they suggest a possible mechanism by which selecting elements, involving only MHC molecules, may be generated in the thymus.